Bob Gould, 2008

Strange reactions to a socialist unification
Three groups unify

Source: Ozleft, February 4-7, 2008
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

After a considerable time of debilitating splits on the far left in Australia, which have taken place in the context of problems presented by new political developments locally and globally, the first significant socialist unification for many years has taken place.

Three groups in the International Socialists tradition, the International Socialist Organisation, Solidarity (a group consisting some people who split from the ISO and Socialist Alternative a few years ago) and the Brisbane-based Socialist Action Group, which split from Socialist Alternative a few years ago, unified at a conference on the weekend of February 2-3.

The united organisation will be known as Solidarity. I’m reliably informed that the conference proceeded in a serious way with little acrimony.

This reduces the number of IS-tradition groups in Australia to two: Solidarity and the extremely propagandist Socialist Alternative. The general framework of the common orientation, which was the consensus of the conference, is based on electoral support for the Greens and then Labor under the preferential system and a broader united front tactic towards the ranks of the Greens, the trade unions and the Labor Party.

In my view, this unification is the healthiest development on the far left in Australia for quite a few years in the small world of the far left.

A strange discussion on socialist unification

February 7, 2008

On Monday I posted on Ozleft a straightforward little news item about the unification of three groups in the IS tradition, and posted pointers to it on the Green Left Weekly discussion list and Marxmail, from where it was picked up and posted to Leftist Trainspotters. It was also picked up on the spin-off from Marxmail, the SWP-USA discussion list, where mention of it was used by some of the participants in one of the demonic and spiteful discussions that often go on there, to demonstrate some almost incomprehensible point or other.

Coincident with all that, in the next couple of days the hits on our revamped Ozleft site went through the roof (for us). Obviously, socialists and others are interested in real information about developments on the far left.

The first online response, by supporters of the DSP majority, was eccentric, spiteful and insanely self-centred. Along with the obligatory abuse of myself, which is de rigueur in those circles, the main theme of the Boyleites seemed to be that the central weakness of my little report was that it didn’t mention the DSP or the Socialist Alliance.

Then off they went for another chorus or two of their self-serving anthem about how central they are to the socialist process in Australia. They grudgingly conceded that the unification might be a good thing, but then said the new group was no good at all because it wouldn’t roll over and subordinate itself to the DSP and its tactics through the Socialist Alliance.

Sometimes I think, politically speaking, the DSP majority leaders are close to barking mad. They routinely abuse me, and accuse me of being obsessed with the bankrupt tactics of the DSP majority, but if I post something that doesn’t mention the DSP, that’s some sort of proof of my perfidy as well. They think the world of politics revolves around them, which really is very close to a state of clinical disturbance.

Norm Dixon asks his usual provocative exposure-oriented questions about how big the new group is, which cities it is in, etc. As if anyone is going to answer his spiteful questions in any sort of detail when he phrases them in such a provocative way. The same applies to his provocative questions trying to get Labor Party members to report to him every detail of their activities so he can broadcast his spiteful version of the activities of socialists in the Labor Party to the world at large.

Dixon could see, if he opened his eyes, the effective activities of a range of activists in and around the Labor Party, on both left and right, in the currently unfolding agitation against the electricity privatisation push in NSW. The twin focuses of this agitation are demonstrative action led by the unions, and political action in the Labor Party, hopefully culminating in defeat of the proposal at a Labor Party conference, which is the way the privatisation proposal was defeated last time.

Bourgeois political journalists such as Joe Hildebrand in the Daily Telegraph and Andrew West in the Sydney Morning Herald can see and write about the unfolding rebellion in Labor Party branches on the privatisation push, but Dixon the great exposer can’t recognise any of that.

His provocative questioning is really directed at making maximum trouble for the very diverse activists in the Labor Party fighting against the privatisation, rather than for Costa and the privatisers. Unless Dixon can “expose” developments in the Labor Party, he ignores them. A healthy agitation such as this one is of no use to Dixon because it doesn’t suit his obsessional exposure line of patter.

The DSP majority contributors and commentators about my little report seem to have been particularly irritated by my assertion that it was one of the best things to happen for years in the small world of the Australian far left. One very young bloke launched a nasty diatribe about Cliffite clones, etc, which tells you much more about his strange mentality than anything about the groups that have just united. Another bloke spouts a furphy about the ISO only having 35 members and then corrects that a bit when challenged.

The reasons I view the unification as the best thing on the left for years are:

a. the general political line, which was the consensus of the gathering, I understand, of electoral support for the Greens followed by Labor, combined with a broader tactic of a united front towards the ranks of the Greens, the Labor Party and unions, without too much DSP-majority-style declamatory exposure and abuse. That seems quite a sensible strategic approach for a small Marxist group, particularly by way of contrast with the other strategies on offer from the far left. It’s possible for left-wingers such as myself in the Labor Party and other leftists in the Greens, and serious-minded trade unionists to collaborate with the members of the new organisation on that basis.

b. I’m told by people in the new organisation that they weren’t overly fussed about dotting every i and crossing every t of so-called “Leninist” rules of organisation. This seems pretty healthy, again by contrast with other groups.

Questions such as the now rather historical matter of deformed workers state theory versus various theories of state capitalism, still have some importance because they’re part of our common Marxist historical tradition in the face of the terrible Stalinist counter-revolution in the mid-20th century, but they’re mainly of historical interest and shouldn’t be an obstacle to rational socialist regroupment. I still have the view that in its time the deformed workers state theory was the best approximation available, but I’m no longer going to die in a ditch over it.

Coincident with all these developments, some little bird, the identity of which I genuinely don’t know, sent me about 600 pages of the recent DSP internal discussion. I’ve been ploughing through this material for a few weeks, which is quite a job. It seems to me, at this moment, that publishing much of it wouldn’t serve any useful purpose because, firstly, it would bore most people stupid and, secondly, it may be too invasive of the privacy of the people involved.

However, I intend over time to comment on a few of the issues of disagreement in that discussion. The main preoccupation of the Green Left discussion was the size of the new organisation.

Concerning the size of organisations, the recent discussion the DSP minority made merry mincemeat of the pretensions of the majority about the size and character of the Socialist Alliance.

The response of chosen members of the majority was to produce laborious analysis of the political character of the members of the Socialist Alliance in particular branches.

Those majority figures are the most damning indictment one could imagine of the Potemkin village flimflam of the majority. About 98 per cent of the non-DSP members of the Socialist Alliance would, in a normal Marxist group not given to delusions of grandeur about its mass character, be regarded as contacts.

For what it may be worth, here is my view of the present numerical state of the far left in Australia: The DSP majority is the marginally biggest group, numerically, with probably between 190 and 220 adherents, counting members and maybe 20 or so more or less active members of the Socialist Alliance who favour the DSP majority. The DSP minority has about 50 adherents, and is obviously still friendly at a personal level with the 10 or so people in Melbourne who left the DSP and formed a group called Direct Action.

Another active smaller group, the Socialist Party, led by Steve Jolly, and based almost entirely in Melbourne, has about 30 adherents. After the DSP, the next biggest group is Socialist Alternative, with between 170 and 200 members, mainly in Melbourne. The new Solidarity group has between 130 and 150 members, and exists mainly in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, with smaller groups in Perth and Canberra.

That’s it for the Trotskyist-background far left: Three competing larger groups, the DSP majority, Socialist Alternative and the new Solidarity, in roughly the same ball park, and two somewhat smaller groups: the DSP minority and Steve Jolly’s Socialist Party. There are literally thousands of leftists in and around the Greens, and there are even more thousands of leftists and trade union militants in and around the Labor Party.

Them’s the facts of life, comrades, and from that point of view the pretensions of the DSP majority to being hegemonic are totally nuts. They’re only hegemonic in their own tiny circles, but they can on occasion make a lot of noise.

Socialist Alternative is a deliberate and systematic propaganda group, which tends to cut it off from the kind of training and development that socialists get from participating in the contradictory and sometimes rather complex external world. The new Solidarity group shows, in my view, healthy signs of wanting to break out of the voluntary isolation of the socialist sects, and that’s a very good thing for the Marxist part of the socialist movement in Australia.

The likely future course of the conflict in the DSP, as informed by a study of the DSP internal documents

The first thing that emerges from the internal discussion is that the minority has flatly refused to wind up as an internal group. The majority has tightened the rules in an extremely Zinovievist direction, which gives it a constitutional basis for throwing out the minority when it thinks fit. Both groups are in an almost impossible position.

The minority is constrained by Zinovievist rules to shut up publicly on questions of perspective, on which the line of the majority is clearly crazy. The majority, for its part, is driven mad by the presence of about 25 per cent of the organisation who quite rationally play an emperor-has-no-clothes role, which over time is very damaging to the majority. The majority leadership clearly has the will and the constitutional grounds to get rid of the minority, but it is in this instance, quite sensibly, afraid of the consequences of doing so.

Another problem clearly facing the majority is that pretty well no one on the far left outside the DSP believes the majority’s manic hegemonic rhetoric. So for the moment the majority lets things run, which includes letting Dave Riley bombard the world with his bombastic rhetoric and letting the unusual bloke who thinks he’s in a Star Wars movie continue making his rather pathetic rhetorical public appeals for all socialists to join the Socialist Alliance. (In a more normal organisation someone would take that bloke aside and try to explain to him the embarrassing character of his public appeals, partly for his own political education, but the cynical leaders of the majority prefer to let him run.)

It seems to me the internal atmosphere in the DSP is poisonous, rather like an internal family feud, which once commenced is fueled by all the grievances that grow up over time in any family. Reading the DSP internal material is rather like watching one of those plays or movies in which a husband and wife chip away at each other for two or three hours.

A possible solution to this problem is the Lutte Ouvrier method, now apparently concluded. This would involve allowing the DSP minority to become a public faction of the DSP, but that’s probably excluded by the adherents of both groups to Zinovievist forms of organisation. The most likely variant is still a split, probably initiated by the majority.

After reading the DSP internal material, I still hold to the view that I formed early on, that the minority, taken as a whole, including its younger members, has a better and in fact improving grasp of Marxism and (an important consideration these days) a far better grasp of reality than the majority. This view is independent of past personal and political differences I have with some of the leaders of the minority, and present political disagreements I have with them on some questions.